In 1993, “Philadelphia” became the first mainstream/blockbuster film to acknowledge the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The picture stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Filmed and set in Philadelphia, PA, it tells the story of gay man named Andrew Beckett who asks lawyer Joe Miller to help him bring a lawsuit on his employers, who had fired him after discovering he had AIDS.
The cultural time period of the 1980’s and early 90’s were full of fear, misinformation, and a lot of lies when it came to HIV and AIDS. A lot of the population didn’t understand the disease, how it was caught, and many made vulnerable people, especially those in the LGBT community, pariahs. Many people saw gays as carriers of HIV and sadly, they were treated as second-class citizens.
I think the film acted as a catalyst for cultural change because regular citizens saw big name actors in a film about a disease they were afraid of. It represented a different view and perspective of gay men with HIV/AIDS. It showed movie-goers that they were just regular people, with feelings and it wasn’t their fault they got infected. They weren’t bad people, just dealt a bad hand.
Hanks, and the film, presented the imagined alternative to counter what many in society were imagining of what they thought they knew or assumed about HIV/AIDS. The filmmakers presented the topic thoughtfully, with care, and the Oscar-winning performances moved people. In my perspective, Many people need art to see the world through new eyes and new civic imaginations, if you will.
I don’t however feel anything is absolute or in a vacuum when it comes to imagined alternatives. There was some movement happening concurrently with the release of Philadelphia helping to change the cultural narrative on HIV and AIDS.
Movements like the NAMES project AIDS quilt which also launched and became popular in that late 80’s/early 90’s era that also helped humanize AIDS patients and victims of the disease by memorializing them on a massive quilt that had 48,000 panels. This to me, paralleled films like Philadelphia and made them culturally important and contributed to the education about HIV, how its transmitted and how you can protect yourself as well.
I believe that Philadelphia definitely helped to entirely reimagine the condition of the treatment of the LGBT, people with HIV/AIDS and the whole AIDS crisis in general by humanizing it for the masses.
A great film with a powerful message shifting societal and cultural views.